Thursday, November 19, 2009

Voyager Bien: New Orleans, Day 1

Through the filmy cab window I watched an above-ground cemetery of compacted marble mausoleums tick by in rhythm. The air was thick and warm, my sinuses and taught skin eased. A few more ticks outside and then a visual break into open swampland. Moss-draped Cypresses seemed to wave their Halloween limbs as we zipped by on the freeway as if by speedboat, the furry green surface of the water a technicolor carpet as far as the eye could see. And out in the middle of that marsh, a small weathered hut on stilts. I couldn't take a photo, just sit with my camera in-hand, jaw a little slack. What was this place??
"OK, drive-thru daiquiri time!" I said to the guys, swivelling forward. Alas, we had already passed Veterans Boulevard, where I was told they are peppered along the roadside. "Well.. we'll grab one in the French Quarter," they said (spoiler: I leave Louisiana without getting my daiquiri!). We exited the freeway, turned a corner and suddenly were in even another country.Past two sentinel live oaks, we were suddenly driving alongside Creole cottages hundreds of years old, casually nestled together like sleeping cats. Forgetting about the daiquiri, my eyes were glued out the smudgy window once more. We passed a French cottage-style corner pub with flickering gas lamps and open shuttered doors, all it was missing was the cobblestones and some smarmy swashbucklers. "That's Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop, one of the oldest bars in the country," the front seat said. I had heard of this place, and I wanted to sit in that circa 1772 building and enjoy a pint. I grinned.Another block and we're in front of The St Philip French Quarter Apartments, a four story pink Creole townhouse, plant-festooned ironwork verandas wrapped with cotton cobwebs, a Saints flag flapping in the breeze. A bigger grin. I didn't realize we would be staying in the true heart of the French Quarter! A horse-drawn carriage clopped past as we wrestled our luggage through the gate. The small courtyard was eclectically dressed up for Halloween, shafts of sun catching a large metal crayfish fountain on the back wall draped with Mardi Gras beads. A freshly carved pumpkin sat on the patio table."We're alll the way up," Michael said ominously motioning to the narrow and steep wooden stairwell.
Post-workout, I wiped the sweat from my brow and observed our room, the 2 bedroom attic apartment may not have had a veranda, but the views in all directions over the French Quarter, toward downtown, and to the Mississippi and Crescent City Connection (formerly the Greater New Orleans Bridge) were fantastic. I opened the windows and let the muggy warmth in. I wanted to feel the city.After settling into our rooms, the boys and I were feeling peckish. We took a stroll two blocks down to Decateur, a main drag that borders the Mississippi. In front of us was the French Market, with the world famous Cafe Du Monde and Central Grocery Co. We took a left and ducked into Coop's Place, a charming, divey watering hole and cafe. I should mention that I was lucky enough to be experiencing New Orleans for the first time with trained professionals. Halloween aside, the big draw of the weekend and reason for my friends' trip was a 4 day lineup of events: Halloween 26 - New Orleans, a benefit for Project Lazarus, a home for Louisiana men and women living with AIDS. So you see, my travel mates here were well seasoned, having attended this charity weekend (always at Halloween) for countless years in a row now. They knew exactly where to go, what to do, how long it would take, what it would cost, what the best route was, why x was better than y, and then charmingly bicker over the finer details. One thing they all seemed to agree on though was Coop's.We were told to sit anywhere by a brawny redheaded woman who exuded N'awlins' unique charm. We circled a round table by the open door and immediately noticed a sleeping kitten on the windowsill. "Stella" our redhead nodded from behind the bar as their kitten stood up, stretching, over sized collar dwarfing her petite frame. Above and all over the walls were colorful bottle-cap-encrusted frames with hand-painted phrases like "Be Nice or Leave!" and "Be Nice or Starve!" displayed in them - something I found to be a commonality throughout the week. A TV over the bar had a local channel airing classic slasher movies, Jason's mask stalking a frantic camper through staticky trees, leaking an occasional muffled scream. A rubber bat bobbed above our heads from the ceiling fan. Halloween was omnipresent in this town, and I loved it. On the right side of the cafe, a massive chalk board menu filled one entire wall, a plethora of delicious sounding Southern delights to choose from. It was my first meal in New Orleans though, and I only needed a snack to tide me over until dinner, so it was a no brainer. I ordered the chicken and andouille sausage gumbo. And a Sazerac, another NOLA staple.The gumbo was bold, flavorful and quite spicy. The Sazerac was prepared properly, but plastic tumblers don't keep strained cocktails chilled and I realized over the course of the meal that it was a bit like taming a fire with kerosene. I began to drool across the table at Michael and Alex's Abita beers. Taking a break from the gumbo's heat, I sampled Michael's side of duck and andouille sausage jambalaya. It had a deliciously complicated smoked flavor that wreaked of family secret - definitely the best jambalaya I tasted on my trip.
Stella wove in between our legs as we ate and sat herself in the doorway as tourists and gutter punks wandered past outside. She perfectly encapsulated the lackadaisical vibe we were happily adjusting to.After a leisurely late afternoon stroll soaking up the pre-Halloween electricity in the air, the sun slipped behind St. Louis Cathedral casting Jackson Square in shadow, the dinner hour already fast upon us. We scurried back to the St. Philip as the goblins began to come out, scrubbed up and called a cab to take us across town to my most anticipated dining locale - the infamous Jacques-Imo's for some "REAL N'awlins food"!We definitely were not in the French Quarter anymore Toto, I thought as we pulled up to the brightly lit shabby Creole townhouse on an otherwise dark street. A mural-painted pick up truck out front with a table for two in the back immediately conveyed the whimsy that is Jacques-Imo's. As they do not take reservations, we were met with an expected wait and strolled next door to the Maple Leaf bar.As real and divey as they come, the Maple Leaf is a fine companion to the rough-around-the-edges Jacques-Imo's, rusty tin plates covering the ceiling and walls, locals seated down the heavy wood bar behind which a man was pouring well drinks into plastic cups. No frills here! As soon as the bourbon was in-hand, our name was being called down the block - thank heavens for the to-go cup.We were walked through Jacques-Imo's kitchen to a back-porch-like room where every inch of wall and ceiling were mural-painted, creating an illusion of some kind of festive swamp party. As soon as we were seated a plate of warm corn bread muffins were dropped, fragrantly dripping with butter and garlic. After a bite I opened the menu, realizing how difficult selecting an entrée would be.Our waiter followed the pattern of sweet, hard-working service, helping us make those last couple of decisions. Mike had been the first to pick his entree, his own little tradition for the past several years - a giant-size pork chop stuffed with ground beef and shrimp. Whoa! I was beginning to get very excited, noticing every table in the packed room chattering with the contagious elation that accompanies a mighty fine meal.The first starter I sampled were the crab-stuffed shrimp with magnolia sauce - which were explosively tasty! I wished there were more, as I sucked on the tail.. The smoked Boudin with Creole mustard sauce was also tasty with a great depth of flavor... But ladies and gentlemen, it was the shrimp and alligator sausage cheesecake - yes, cheesecake - that blew my mind tonight. Initially not completely sure I was up for trying reptile, I watched and heard the faces and sounds around the table as each took their first bite. "OH OK pass the plate!" I finally squawked reaching across the table (which was only the beginning of my adventurous eating this charmed week). Technically a cheesecake, remove all notions of expected flavor and texture here - this dish was rich, warm and smooth, tantalizing and savory without a hint of fishiness or gaminess (which I feared). My eyes rolled up and I literally savored each bite of this. I will go back if for this modest starter alone.For my entrée I selected the paneed rabbit with oyster Tasso pasta - a huge piece of rabbit pounded flat and tender before breaded and fried. The pasta was incredible, chock full of butter-sauteed oysters (which were suspiciously more like mussels) and shreds of spicy smokey cajun Tasso ham. For my sides I couldn't not get the mashed sweet potatoes and mixed greens (collards/mustard). Both were exceptional, though moot as this was enough food here for three.We were certainly going to skip dessert, but since one of the entrées was slightly late coming out, our server brought out a spread on the house immediately following our meal, a crème brûlée with a strawberry coulis, fresh mini strawberry shortcakes, and the winner: a sweet potato pecan pie. I couldn't resist, as crème brûlée is my favorite, and the pie was Southern perfection. I knew I would regret it... By the time we climbed the 3 flights of stairs back at the St. Philip I was hurtin' pretty bad. Bless my dear roomie for having emergency alka-seltzer on hand to ease my pain!I couldn't believe the day's adventures had only been within several hours since my arrival. I watched as some michevious rain clouds descended over downtown, curiously peeking in like my anticipation over what else this magical city had in store for me...

Coop's Place
1109 Decatur St
New Orleans, LA; 504.525.9053
Coop's Place on Urbanspoon

Jacques-Imos Cafe
8324 Oak St
New Orleans, LA; 504.861.0886
Jacques-Imo's Cafe on Urbanspoon

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